University of Melbourne researchers trial mind-controlled bionic spine

A University of Melbourne research project is set to change the lives of people suffering from paralysis—all thanks to a device the size of a paper clip.

A team of biomedical engineers and scientists at the University of Melbourne have developed a device that enables people with paralysis to control their movements with the power of conscious thought.

Dubbed the ‘bionic spine’, the implant works by translating signals sent from the motor cortex into commands. These commands are then sent via Bluetooth to bionic limbs, an exoskeleton or a wheelchair.

Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer, Dr Nicholas Opie, explains: “If you put electrodes over the motor cortex––the part of the brain responsible for movement––people with paralysis can control robotic limbs and prosthetics just by using their thoughts.”

In this way, a person with paralysis can regain mobility by using their mind.

According to Dr Opie, the insertion procedure is similar to the everyday procedure to remove blood clots and is “safe and reliable”.

While other devices require open brain surgery, the bionic spine is inserted through a catheter, minimising the risk of infection and other complications.

A catheter containing the implant is fed through a small incision in the patient’s neck. It travels up through the blood vessels until it reaches the motor cortex.

The first human trial of the ground-breaking device is scheduled for 2017, when up to five patients with spinal cord injuries will be inserted with the device.

“We’ll be able to implant one of our electrodes in a day procedure,” explains Dr Opie.

“Once a patient is trained, they should be able to use the electrodes to control a computer in the first stage and then wheelchairs and an exoskeleton in the next.”

While the project is designed to “help people with paralysis overcome their mobility difficulties,” Dr Opie believes it has the potential to do much more.

“If we can connect to the brain then we can connect to whatever devices or equipment people make and users want,” he explains.

Indeed, the device could do far more than enhance mobility.

If the motor cortex can be reached to stimulate movement, it could also be stimulated to treat other neural conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and Motor Neuron disease, he says.

Neural stimulation could even help patients with mental illness.

“Other applications have been suggested for post-traumatic stress and depression,” explains Dr Opie.

Dr Opie attributes the success of the project to the expertise of the Melbourne-based research team, which includes 39 neurologists and biomedical engineers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Melbourne University and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

“This has only been possible because of the facilities and infrastructure around Melbourne and, in particular, the Parkville precinct,” says Dr Opie.

“This is the sort of project that needs the expertise from a range of different scientists, researchers and academics and clinicians. And we’re very lucky in Melbourne to have that all in the one place.”